“AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange” is celebrating its milestone 15th season by shaking things up a bit. Brought to you by WORLD Channel and Harlem’s Black Public Media and co-presented by American Public Television, “AfroPoP” is renowned for its annual showcase of some of the best documentary films from across the African diaspora.
This year, for the very first time, the films, airing on WORLD Channel each Monday between April 3 and May 1 at 8 p.m. ET, will center around one theme. The arts, and of course, the artists behind them will be the focus of five extraordinary films, starting with dancer Rosalynd LeBlanc’s directorial debut, “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man and The Waters.” That will be followed by “Queen Kidjo,” “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts,” “Sound of Masks,” and end with “Rewind & Play.”
“Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man and The Waters” takes the audience on several journeys, with a crop of young dancers as LeBlanc and D-Man and The Waters’ celebrated choreographer Bill T. Jones, teaching them some of the most difficult and demanding contemporary dance choreography ever made. It also carries the audience back to the fraught and anxious era that in part inspired D-Man and The Waters: the late 1980s, when AIDS, then a frightening, unknown entity, began surging, hitting the arts community particularly hard. It sadly took the lives of many (including the “D-Man” after whom the dance is named, and Jones’s romantic and professional partner Arne Zane) and their creative bounty with them. “D-Man and The Waters” is a brisk walk through history and intriguing insight into the creative process for both teacher and student.
Buckle up tight for “Queen Kidjo,” because it does a deft job of showcasing not just the prodigious singing talents of perhaps the foremost ambassador of African music the world has ever seen, but also Angelique Kidjo’s signature copious energy and magnificent joie de vivre.
Taking us from her birth and childhood in Benin, where she first began to find her voice, through her expatriation to France as a young adult, and finally to her domination on the “world music” scene as someone with the singular ability to meld almost any musical genre with the rhythms of various African musical forms.
The doc uses other artists, family members, and mainly Kidjo herself to illustrate her uncanny talent and ability to connect with people across the globe through the power of her art. Vast amounts of archival footage provide insight into those she influenced and was influenced by both artistically and politically.
An artist who flourished in Jim Crow-era Alabama and died in relative obscurity, Bill Traylor, who was born a slave in 1853, finally began getting his flowers a few years ago, with a Smithsonian exhibition of his work. Now the beautifully wrought documentary “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” further familiarizes the public with him. Although sadly, much of the work Traylor did was lost to time, what remained is put to excellent use in this intimate look at the work of the self-taught artist. An emphatic melding of folk and modern art, Traylor’s drawings and paintings, in all their seeming simplicity, reflect the complexity of his own world—that of the blues, nascent jazz, belief in the supernatural, the slavery-influenced rural life of his youth, and the urban life of his later years, where he astutely observed modern African-American identity begin to take shape.
Dance is again the focus n Sara CF de Gouveia’s “Sound of Masks.” Deeply engaging, it showcases the Mapiko, a traditional masked dance done exclusively by male members of the Makonde community of northern Mozambique. The dance is seen through the expert eyes of Atanásio Nhussi, historically considered one of the world’s best Mapiko dancers and an amiable arbiter of the culture. Not simply movement, the dance, which is done in elaborate masks and costume, is also art, social commentary, and theater, telling the story of the struggle of the Makondo people against colonizers and their post-colonial efforts to hold onto their culture and autonomy.
Doing away with virtually all the usual documentary trappings (interviews with the subject and other commentators, archival footage, photographs, etc.), “Rewind & Play” director Alain Gomis keeps an intimate focus on jazz legend Thelonious Monk as he and fellow musician and TV producer Henri Renaud tape an episode of the French TV series “Jazz Portraits” in 1969.
Although it showcases Monk’s brilliance on the piano, “Rewind & Play” is often hard to watch. Many extreme close-ups catch Monk, clothed in a suit and hat under studio lights, with rivulets of perspiration cascading down his face. When Monk tells the truth about the pay and other discrimination he’s faced, Renaud, who is white, bluntly shuts him down, saying only that “It’s not nice.” It’s literally an up-close examination of the way culture is manipulated to fit a narrative convenient for an often-racist mainstream populace.“AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange” can also be viewed on WORLD Channel’s YouTube channel and on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video app.